Start Simple

If you’re looking to get started with gardening and are not sure where to start, I recommend herbs. Herbs are easy to care for whether you have space for an indoor or an outdoor plant. You can also enjoy using the harvest from your herbs in the kitchen. 

I will use spearmint as an example. Spearmint (Mentha spicata) is a very common garden herb, and it is easy to grow. Spearmint is shade tolerant and water loving. Often you see mint growing under hose spigots or near other water sources because of the cool, damp conditions. You can often grow mint from a cutting of another mint plant, or you can buy a mint plant at a nursery or garden center. There are other varieties of mint other than the standard spearmint such as peppermint, chocolate mint, orange mint, pineapple mint, and so forth. Most of what I am going to write should apply to these other varieties as well. 

Spearmint (Mentha spicata)

Starting Mint

When starting mint from a cutting, you can keep the cutting in a cup of water or wrapped in a damp paper towel until you are ready to plant it. Many people prefer to root their in mint in this way as well. I’ve found that you do not have to root mint in water before trying to get it to root in soil, but sometimes it helps. You can also keep the paper towel moist until the mint grows roots as well. This can take 3-5 days. Or you can plant the mint cutting directly in the soil, burying it enough to keep the cutting upright. Be sure to water well (1-2 times per day) until the mint plant becomes established (about 2 weeks). 

When buying mint from a nursery, be sure to also buy a pot at least 50% larger than the pot that the mint is being sold in. You will also need a little potting soil. I suggest this because often herbs that are at the nursery are going to quickly outgrow their plastic or paper pot, and you will need to transplant them to a larger pot within a month of purchasing them. 

Here’s a warning: Do not plant mint in the ground (unless you want to have mint forever)! Mint is an invasive plant, or in other words, it will get into everything. Mint is better planted in its own container separate from other plants. The reason is that mint propagates itself vegetatively. It sends out runners and can plant itself in new places. It can be very hard to get rid of if it gets into a part of your garden that you do not want to have mint. 

Plant Care Tips

Now, assuming that you now have an established mint plant that has been transplanted into its own separate pot, where will you put that mint plant to ensure that it is as successful as possible? I recommend putting the mint in partial shade. A sunny windowsill should do if you are keeping your mint plant indoors. As mentioned before, mint does tolerate shade fairly well, so if you have a tricky shady spot in your garden where nothing else wants to grow, put your mint there. Partial shade is ideal, however, because partial shade also means partial sun, and plants do love the sun (photosynthesis, ya know?).

Your mint plant’s water needs will vary depending on the conditions it is growing in. If your plant is outdoors in full sun in the middle of summer, chances are you will be watering daily or every other day. If your mint plant is in full shade, then chances are you will only be watering 1-2 times a week or less. Is your mint plant indoors on your windowsill? It may need less water because it is indoors, however, if you don’t have air conditioning or the plant is right next to the stove (not recommended), then the mint plant will need more frequent watering. 

In general, I recommend watering on a three times per week schedule during the warm months. That is usually not too much and not too little. You may have to experiment with watering schedules because everyone’s growing conditions will be different. Just check the soil with a finger to see if it is wet or not. You don’t need it to be soaked all the time, but you do not want it to be bone dry either. Moist as a wrung out sponge is a good reference point for appropriate soil saturation feel. 

To put it simply, give your mint plant sun and water and have a little patience, and you should have some mint you can use within 4-6 weeks. 

Harvesting Mint

To harvest mint you will need a sharp pair of shears. Kitchen shears or hand pruners will do. Cutting herbs with sharp shears is highly preferred to snapping herbs off with fingers. This will be much gentler on the plant and it will result in a clean wound which is easier for the plant to heal from than a rough tear or a bruise. 

Harvest your mint with a cut that is diagonal to the stem. This will allow the cut to heal more cleanly, and it is less likely to become infected. You can harvest stem by stem if you are only using small amounts of mint at a time. If you need a lot of mint, you can clearcut the mint. Clear cutting means you cut the herb almost down to the soil level all at one time. Generally, herbs recover more quickly if there is some plant matter left intact. I would suggest not harvesting more than 50% of the plant at a time. Either way, mint is a relatively fast growing plant, and it will likely bounce back pretty quickly from a harvest. 

Mint Simple Syrup

Simple syrups are a reduction of sugar and water that are used in beverages including coffee drinks and cocktails. There are many different recipes for simple syrups online, but what I’ve learned is that they are generally all a 1:1:1 ratio. 

1 cup water

1 cup sugar

1 cup mint

Wash the mint. Destemming the leaves is optional since you will be straining out the pieces of mint later. Combine the water, sugar and mint in a pot on the stove. Bring it to a boil. Once it is boiling, turn down the heat and simmer for a couple of minutes until the syrup begins to thicken. Let cool for about 30 mins. Strain out the mint pieces and store the syrup in a jar in the refrigerator. In my experience, the syrup loses potency the longer it sits, so try to use up in the first couple of weeks. 

I referenced this recipe for instructions: Mint Simple Syrup on Allrecipes

Mint to Be” Whiskey Sour

I love whiskey sours! When my boyfriend made them for us the other night he added a surprise twist- our homemade mint simple syrup. Here’s his recipe:

Makes 2 cocktails.

3 shots of Bulleit Bourbon (or whichever whiskey you prefer)

Juice from 1 lemon

1 shot mint simple syrup

1 egg white

Combine ingredients in a shaker. Shake. Serve over ice. Enjoy!

Emily’s Mint Latte

We had family over for brunch recently, and my boyfriend’s sister was there visiting from out of town. To go along with our yummy quiche, we made mint lattes with (yep, you guessed it) our homemade mint simple syrup. You can just as easily add it to a brewed coffee or tea, but if you have an espresso maker, I recommend going for the latte.

Equipment:

Espresso maker with milk foamer

Ingredients:

Espresso

Milk (whichever is your preference)

Mint Simple Syrup

For a hot latte, add a couple of tablespoons (this you can adjust to your preferences) of mint simple syrup to your milk. Foam the milk and simple syrup together until the steaming container is hot. Pull a shot espresso. Pour foamed milk and syrup over the espresso. Garnish with a mint leaf, if desired. 

For a cold latte, fill a glass with ice and add your mint simple syrup. Pull a shot of espresso and add it to the glass with ice. Add cold milk and fill the glass up to the top. Garnish with a mint leaf, if desired. 

Introducing: Alex

ca. 2016 at the UC Davis Student Farm in Davis, CA. Featuring me, Alex, and a Jumbo Pink Banana Squash.

Hi everyone! My name is Alex, and I am your resident gardener on this blog. Thought I should introduce myself. If you want the quickest intro possible, here’s the overview:

  • Age 26
  • Sacramento resident
  • Bachelor’s degree in Sustainable Agriculture and Food Systems from University of California, Davis
  • Farmer/gardener since 2014
  • Spirit vegetable: Onion (I have layers)

For more detail, feel free to read on…

First of all, if you’ve never gardened before, don’t let that scare you away! I grew up in the suburbs outside of Sacramento where shopping centers seemed to be my natural habitat. I am not a natural-born green thumb. I actually caught the gardening bug in college. I was inspired when one of my biology professors shared about her personal gardening and how it allowed her family the ability to live more sustainably. I found her example extremely encouraging, and the idea of growing my own food and sustainable living have been linked in my mind ever since. #growyourownfood #sustainable

California (especially Sacramento) is a hotbed of agriculture. In fact, California is the largest food producer in the U.S. (California Farmland Trust 2019), and it exports food all over the country and the world. Due to the climate here, we can grow crops all year round. In my childhood, I remember taking family road trips through the heart of California to go visit relatives in Southern California. On these road trips, I would spend hours watching row after row of crops go by as well as thousands of acres of fruit and nut trees. These images stuck with me and eventually became the focus of my college studies. 

I studied Sustainable Agriculture and Food Systems at UC Davis. This very interdisciplinary major linked together the main social, economic, and environmental issues that I was interested in at the time. Turns out the food systems plays a very key role in all of these. Little did I suspect that my academic interest in such topics would lead me into the actual world of farming (you think I might have picked that up from the title). 

While working towards my degree, I interned at the UC Davis Student Farm. The Student Farm is comprised of several acres of organic fruits and vegetables. The farm sells its produce to students and faculty through an on-campus CSA (Community Supported Agriculture) and to the campus dining services. Farm work is performed by student interns and volunteers overseen by several experienced staff farmers and the faculty farm coordinator. Working on the student farm from 2014-2017 gave me a wide variety of hands-on experience with organic growing methods. I was hooked. #organic #womenwhofarm

Several other gardens I have worked at include a garden sponsored by the Placer County Food Bank which grew produce specifically for donation to Placer County residents in need. I also was the garden manager for several months at the Putah Creek Cafe Kitchen Garden in Winters, CA. The produce was directly garden-to-table. This also gave me a taste of floral arranging as part of my role was to provide flower bouquets for the cafe’s dining room. 

More recently, I worked on the Google Headquarters Campus in Mountain View as the coordinator for their employee community garden program. I was contracted through Brightview Landscaping to maintain and advance the edible gardens program on campus. With nine garden sites and 300+ volunteers, there was a lot of gardening to do! 

Another major piece of my story is my work with the Davis Farmers Market. I cannot say enough good things about the Davis Farmers Market. It is absolutely the heart of the Davis community. It is filled with college students, local residents, families, international visitors, and farmers, crafters, and food producers of all kinds. It is an oasis of nourishment! It is always a delight to visit the market, and I am almost always sure to buy more food than I intended to. The beautiful produce and sizzling food trucks are too hard to resist! I began volunteering at the market the summer before I transferred into UC Davis. The volunteer gig turned into a staff position that lasted for the next four years. 

Many a meal has been inspired by farmers market finds. Most recently, my boyfriend and I made Chili Honey Garlic Lime Chicken (we’re working on a better name for it) with hot peppers and garlic from one of my favorite stands. Not only was our meal absolutely delicious, but we also had the added enjoyment of knowing the farmer who grew the delicious ingredients! 

Admittedly, meals such as the Chili Honey Garlic Lime Chicken are a luxury for my boyfriend and me. As new homeowners, our food budget has gotten a little tighter, and we are likely to supplement wonderful farmers market ingredients with meats purchased from bulk stores. However, we are making it work! I also look forward to building up the garden in our new backyard, so that we can save money and time by growing fresh ingredients ourselves! 

With the backyard garden plans in their development stage, most of my “gardening” work will be on paper and on the computer in the meantime. First garden tip- keep a garden notebook. It helps. A LOT. Even if you just scribble down dreams for a future garden, it matters. I like to write down things that I want to plant, supplies I might need, and ideas I will need to research before jumping into a planting. Research and preparation are key factors in successful garden management. 

As I write this blog, I will be keeping you updated on my backyard garden plans, my awesome farmers market finds (and what to do with them), and I will be writing general garden topic posts that apply to the current season in Sacramento, CA. If you are reading from somewhere else, just keep in mind that gardening and seasonality of foods are dictated by where you live and conditions may differ where you are. Thanks for going on this journey with me! If you have any questions, feel free to post in the comments, and you may just see your question answered with a blog post! 

Keep it green,

Alex

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